THE Science Media Centre (SMC) Malaysia, in collaboration with the Malaysian Health Coalition (MHC), hosted their first webinar last Saturday to discuss strategies for the “new normal” once the movement-control order (MCO) is lifted. The webinar was moderated by Tan Su Lin, co-founder of SMC Malaysia.
The panellists comprised health, mental health and science communication experts who analysed key issues relating to the Covid-19 outbreak in Malaysia. They were senior consultant paediatrician Dr Amar-Singh HSS, consultant clinical psychologist Associate Professor Dr Zubaidah Jamil Osman and Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan, science communication expert and co-founder of SMC Malaysia.
The panellists discussed many issues, such as the impact of a long-term MCO on mental health, life after the MCO, MCO exit strategies, preparations for the new normal, and the importance of effective science communication during the Covid-19 crisis.
Dr Amar opined that Malaysia is not ready to exit the MCO as there are many issues that still need to be addressed. He identified four weaknesses of the six criteria outline by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for exiting the MCO. The four are testing and screening; the capacity of the healthcare system; contact tracing; and, most importantly, the mindset of the community to live in the new normal.
“I do not believe that the general public has fully grasped and adopted all the necessary preventative measures, such as physical distancing, to stop the spread of Covid-19. We cannot have only 50% or 70% of people who are compliant.
“To stop the spread of this disease, according to WHO, almost all of society must abide by these measures and take responsibility. I don’t think that the general public has fully understood this.”
He added that the 33 new cases of Covid-19 among patients with influenza-like illness (ILI) and severe acute respiratory infection in the last two weeks showed that the virus is still spreading within the community.
“What we have yet to understand is, although the spread is under control, people are still being infected, which means that the virus is still spreading from one person to another in our society.
“What will happen if we are not careful is that the virus will continue to spread, and there will be an even larger second or third wave.”
Dr Amar is also former head of the Paediatric Department at Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun in Ipoh, and recently co-wrote standard operating procedures for schools and childcare centres for the post-MCO period.
These SOPs produced by the National Early Childhood Intervention Centre (NECIC) highlight the need to train teachers and parents on preventative measures, which include the physical distancing of students in the classroom.
“I cannot imagine 40 students sitting in a classroom with one teacher. That is very dangerous,” said Dr Amar.
“It is unlikely that the disease will be fatal for children, nor will they fall severely ill, but they could carry the infection to their parents and grandparents.”
Meanwhile, Dr Zubaidah urged people to mentally prepare for and accept the new normal, which includes continuing with physical distancing and staying at home.
“Physical distancing is the new norm post-MCO. It is important that this is distinguished from social distancing. Stay in touch with your loved ones, friends and community members through social media and technology.
“People will always respond and follow when they see the benefits of their actions. So, we must view these preventative measures as a social responsibility to protect ourselves and others.
“It may feel difficult in the beginning because it is not something we are used to, but we must condition ourselves and teach ourselves to get used to it,” she said, adding that feeling anxious is also part of the new norm.
“A little anxiety is not a bad thing because it will motivate people to wash their hands, wear masks and abide by physical distancing.”
Dr Mahaletchumy said strategies for exiting the MCO must be communicated clearly to ensure people understand the consequences if new-norm behaviours are not observed.
“General awareness and understanding of scientific issues in our society is low. During the height of the pandemic, many people still did not understand the risk of infection. We can see that many people are still leaving their homes and breaking MCO rules. Without a real exit strategy, many will think that the virus is gone once the MCO is lifted.
“I am worried that when the MCO exit strategy is announced, the public perception will be that the pandemic is over and that there is no more virus. This is simply not true. The virus will not disappear just like that, and there is no guarantee that it will not return.
“So, an effective science communication strategy will be crucial. I hope that the Health Ministry plans a clear communication strategy before announcing any lifting of MCO restrictions.”
She emphasised that investment in long-term research and development is required for vaccine research as it may take a long time.
Watch the full webinar here.
NECIC’s guidelines for schools and childcare centres for the post-MCO period can be viewed here. – April 27, 2020.
* This is a joint statement by SMC Malaysia and MHC.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.